About Mediaeval St Andrews

geddy-st-andrewsMediaeval St Andrews began as a team-taught honours module offered in the School of History and has evolved into a cross-faculty collaborative project. Bringing together a range of projects across the University, our principal purpose is to collect, research, teach and share knowledge about St Andrews up to the Reformation.

The name and fame of St Andrews in the Middle Ages derived from its claim to be the resting place of bones belonging to the apostle, Andrew. Legends from the twelfth century describe a monk carrying the relics to a Pictish king who founded an abbey to house them at Kilrymont, renamed St Andrews. Though much of this was myth, that Kilrymont was a Pictish royal centre is demonstrated by several pieces of evidence, the most tangible of which is the St Andrews sarcophagus, a finely carved stone box dating from c.750-850.

The reform of the church in the twelfth century cemented St Andrews’ importance as Scotland’s ecclesiastical capital. The cathedral, which was begun in the 1160s, was the longest and most impressive building in Mediaeval Scotland. It was built to reflect the status of the bishop and of the shrine of Saint Andrew and, despite setbacks caused by weather, fire and war it was finally consecrated in 1318. This ceremony was used as a display of thanksgiving for Robert Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn four years earlier.  Though ruined, the cathedral still dominates the east of the town and alongside it stands the striking eleventh-century church of St Regulus with its high tower from which Mediaeval St Andrews can be viewed below. Both churches stand within the impressive wall of the cathedral priory. The wall dates from the early sixteenth century and is one kilometre in length with thirteen surviving towers and three gates, the oldest of which is the fourteenth-century Pends. The size of the cathedral and its precincts are testament to the importance of St Andrews’ relics in attracting pilgrims from Scotland and beyond to eastern Fife and this function also drew in other religious foundations. The extensive site of the leper hospital of St Nicholas was unearthed south of the town, while the remains of the Dominican friary on South Street and of the Chapel Royal on the cliffs can also be seen.

St Andrews was also the seat of the senior bishop (and from 1472, archbishop) of Scotland, whose leading role in the kingdom was reflected by his role in the inauguration of a new king and by use of the title, ‘bishop of the Scots’. This figure of both spiritual and temporal power built his palace in the form of the cliff-top castle a few hundred yards from the cathedral. Though first constructed in the twelfth century, the castle was fully rebuilt in the 1380s after its destruction in the Wars of Independence. During the next 150 years it was remodelled as a residence and then fortified against artillery. The castle’s defences were tested in the long siege of 1546-7 which ended with its capture by a French army and fleet.

The Mediaeval bishops were the real architects of St Andrews. Bishop Robert founded the burgh in about 1130 and the town grew in the shadow of the great ecclesiatical buildings around it. The street plan with two broad thoroughfares running directly to the cathedral, north and south of the market place, reflects the importance of pilgrimage to the townsfolk as well as to the clergy in St Andrews. The character of late Mediaeval St Andrews can still be detected in a number of surviving town houses from the period, most notably St John’s House, a building begun in about 1450 and now used to house history postgraduates including those in the St Andrews Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

The other legacy of the bishops of St Andrews was the university. Scottish masters returning from Paris during the Great Schism in the papacy naturally gravitated to St Andrews and received a charter of privileges from the bishop, Henry Wardlaw by early 1412. Though the university was only formally established by papal grant, the bishops acted as principal patrons of the institution in their role as chancellor. The inheritance of this Mediaeval origin remains considerable. The remarkable collection of fifteenth-century university maces and the chapels of St Salvators from 1450 and St Leonards from 1512 are merely the most obvious physical reminders. An impressive collection of incunabula in the university library is another.

The Scottish Reformation from the late 1550s onwards dealt St Andrews blows from which it has never fully recovered. The ruin of the cathedral, churches and castles from direct assault, neglect and the bracing climate was symbolic of a more general loss of status and role in the public and spiritual life of Scotland and Christendom. Of the many great Mediaeval institutions of St Andrews, only the university has persisted. However, the compensation for this change has come in the retention of St Andrews’ Mediaeval character in its architecture and wider environment. These give the town and university a special appeal to students of the Middle Ages.

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